by Hailey Evelyn Wilson
I can still remember the cool weight around my neck. My mother’s pearls were smooth, soft and strangely heavy. They were perfectly round; “top quality,” she always said. She purchased them from a small shop in Maine before I was born with the first paycheck from her first job out of college. She was proud of that.
Throughout the major scenes and acts of my childhood, she always had them laced around her porcelain neck. To me, they seemed like magic.
When she wore them she transformed from a nervous, slightly-neurotic housewife into a self-possessed woman, commanding awe when she entered the room. She wore them to funerals, weddings, piano recitals, any occasion she wanted to be her best.
When I was little I would sneak into her room and stand over her jewelry box. Carefully, despite my childish clumsiness, I’d pull out the drawer and steal a touch of the pearls’ skin-like surface. I was in awe of them, but I was in awe of her too when she wore them.
Even now, decades later, the image is still burned in my mind of my mother gripping the pearls with one hand as her other hand gripped the side of my grandmama’s coffin. She leaned over to kiss her mother on the forehead. My mother’s expression was implacable; there was grief and acceptance there too.
After the funeral she shared hilarious Grandma Essie stories and accepted burnt casseroles from our neighbors. I was young but I remember being so proud of my mother’s ability to turn tragedy into comedy. “We’re Baptists, honey,” she said. “We put the ‘fun’ in ‘funeral.’ Now weddings — that’s another story.”
Family reunions were a boon with so many people around to admire her respectable cooking and domestic prowess. It became tradition for her cousins to mention the pearls. I especially remember crazy cousin Trula, her mascara-laden eyelashes were longer than her earlobes. The whole family beheld her in horrified awe. (She had had the temerity to marry a lusty Brazilian and live in The Big City up north). Every gathering, Trula would affront mine and my sister’s faces with slobbery greetings and then turn to my mother. Her fake tanned hands lifted the strand from my mother’s pale neck as she cooed, calling them “voluptuous.” Her heavily painted lips enunciated every syllable as if English wasn’t her first language. What an odd way to describe a piece of jewelry, I thought. But cousin Trula was right, they were voluptuous.
Mother never let me or my sister touch her precious strand of pearls. We knew they were her favorite and she claimed exclusive possession over so little, we were content to respect this.
But there was one day she let me put them on. It wasn’t a special day, no funeral, no wedding. It was just a Sunday afternoon. I was about 19 years old when she called me into her room. The windows were thrown open as they usually were in the summer. Her room was alive with motion and light, the sheer curtains swaying in the fresh breeze and sun. The warmth made me sleepy and happy and Heaven was in that room.
“Come here,” she said in her soft, but commanding voice. Obeying, I found myself in front of that familiar wood jewelry box. Out of the same drawer I had opened so many times in secret, she drew out a silk purse, china-red and decadent but worn.
To my astonishment, she gingerly slid those satiny pearls around my neck and fastened the tiny golden clasp. I don’t know what possessed my mother to do this, but I think she was trying to share something of herself with me.
Taking me by the shoulders she placed me in front of the antique mirror on her dresser. I had seen those magical pearls so many times throughout my life, but never around my neck. They looked peculiar and out of place on my gawky frame.
“What do you think?” she said. I half-smiled, feeling awkward and much too unworthy of this gesture. How could I answer her? I was overwhelmed. She just wrapped me in Helen of Troy’s beauty — my mother’s superpowers were cooling my skin.
She laughed as she lifted my hair, undid the clasp and said, “Alright, I’m sorry. I suppose they are too corny for you.”
I had spent years admiring those pearls; imagining them soft and smooth around my neck. What wonderful, tremendous feats could I not accomplish with them? These pearls were the source of my mother’s strength, the spring of all of her triumphs. Did she not know how I felt about them? About her?
I said nothing to her in reply. It shocked me to realize how little we understood each other; and we never spoke about the pearls again.
A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, Hailey Evelyn Wilson writes about what she knows, which is big, crazy, Southern families. Her experiences with her own family are a continuous source of writing material, and she tries to capture a balance between humor and heartbreak. This story explores the source of the strength of the South’s “Steel Magnolias” and the complexity of a daughter’s relationship with her mother. Wilson now lives and work in San Ramon, California, but says she still pines for honeysuckle in May and fall colors in October.